U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) has faced voters of his district three times since 2002 and has never cracked 51 percent of the vote, but that's still always been enough to ensure victory.
Conventional wisdom suggests that 2006 — a year in which the Democrats retook the house and ousted two Philadelphia-area GOP incumbents — represented the best chance to unseat the incumbent, and that Gerlach should be able to breath a little easier this time around. But in a topsy-turvy political season in which polls and pundits have often turned out dead wrong, a trio of Democrats are hopping to succeed where Dan Wofford and Lois Murphy (twice) have failed.
The district encompasses sections of Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties, and just a bit of Lehigh County.
Mike Liebowitz, Robert Roggio and former State Sen. Robert A. Rovner appear headed for an April 22 primary showdown over who gets to represent the Democrats in November. And with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) seemingly headed for a Keystone State showdown of their own, primary-day turnout could well exceed the roughly 29,000 district democrats who voted in 2006.
Rovner — husband of Jewish Publishing Group board member Sherrie Savett Rovner — is perhaps the best known of the potential challengers: The 64-year-old litigator is a one-time Republican state senator from Bucks County.
"The more people that turn out, I think the better it is for me. I've been active for years," said Rovner, a member of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood and the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia. Rovner said that he hopes to help change the country's approaches to economic and foreign policy.
Liebowitz, 29, first ran for the seat in 2006, capturing about 25 percent of the vote in a primary against Murphy. The member of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood is an attorney who owns a firm that specializes in restoring historic buildings.
He argued that with the Democrats strength in Montgomery County and Gerlach's base in Chester County, the race will boil down to Berks County — and he's the one with the best chance of competing there.
"We need to move the political center of gravity in this district north and west," said Liebowitz, of Haverford. "The perception in the northern part of the district is that these campaigns are run for Main Line and inner Philadelphia suburbs."
But so far, Roggio is the only candidate who has managed to pick up a party endorsement. The Chester County Democrats are backing him, while the Berks organization has decided to withhold an endorsement: It's not clear what the Montgomery apparatus has planned.
The 61-year-old Roggio spent 30 years working at Zenith Products Corporation, a manufacturer of bathroom organizational products. He worked on U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's (D-Pa.) 2006 campaign, then spent a year as a field representative for the senator.
"The sixth district is all in play," said Roggio, who cited the economy, environment and energy as his signature issues.
In the Neighboring District …
Meanwhile, in the neighboring district, three Republican candidates are aiming to unseat U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13), who won her 2004 race handily and her 2006 contest by a landslide.
The hopefuls are Marina Kats, a 46-year-old Abington attorney born in the former Soviet Union; Lee Falgoust, a 46-year-old businessman active in the GOP in Upper Moreland Township; and Frank Szabo, a 45-year-old stay-at-home father who once owned a limousine service and currently sits on the board of directors of Pennypack Farm: Educational Center for Sustainable Food.
On Feb. 25, Republican ward leaders in Montgomery County will gather to decide which candidate to endorse.
Both Kats — a longtime board member at HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia who is seeking to become the first Jew from the former Soviet Union to be elected to Congress — and Falgoust have agreed to drop out of the race if they're not chosen, seeking to avoid a potentially costly primary that could weaken the party's resources and overall chances in the general election.
But Szabo, a libertarian who has volunteered for the U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) presidential campaign in New Hampshire, has made no such assurances. Kats described herself as a moderate Republican, and Falgoust said that he was refraining from campaigning and getting into his political philosophy until after Feb. 25.
As of now, no primary battles are expected in the 7th and 8th districts. But two Republican contenders have announced their intentions to try and unseat the pair of freshman, war-veteran representatives who have each made scaling down operations in Iraq a major thrust of their legislative agendas.
W. Craig Williams, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war and former assistant district attorney, is hoping to unseat U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7). Tom Manion, a retired U.S. Marine Col. and Johnson & Johnson executive, is hoping to defeat U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy come November.
Hoping to defeat Murphy, the only Iraq-war veteran in Congress, Manion noted that he was inspired by his son Travis, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate killed last year in Iraq.